A glacier in the Alps — yes, those Alps, long synonymous with expressions like “snow-capped” — is melting, according to recent research presented at a December meeting of the American Geophysical Union, and faster than ever. From studying ice cores drilled from the Alto dell’Ortles glacier, a team of six glaciologists from Ohio State University has found that the Alps in Italy are melting “at an unprecedented rate.”
The Alto dell’Ortles glacier (at 2.4 miles above sea level, the highest glacier in the eastern Alps) has shown no sign of melting for thousands and thousands of years, as confirmed by the discovery of one dried-out leaf from a larch tree that existed some 2,600 years ago. The yellowed leaf was found encased in solid ice, around 240 feet below the surface and wedged below the “firn,” a layer of grainy, compacted snow that has partially melted.
Back in 2011, Paolo Gabrielli, a research scientist at Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State, and other researchers had found something worrisome: the first 100 feet of the glacier was composed of firn. Prior to this, the Alto dell’Ortles glacier had consisted of “nothing but solid and colder ice all the way down to the frozen bedrock.” As a press release from Oho State University explains, the researchers’ new finding
…suggests that snow was accumulating on the mountaintop and was compacted into ice for thousands of years without ever melting—until about 30 years ago, which is when each year’s new deposit of snow began melting.
The larch leaf, whose age was determined via carbon dating, is evidence for “the idea that prehistoric ice is still present at the highest elevations of the region,” says Gabrielli. But the fact that the scientists were able to find the leaf at all suggests how climate change is changing, or rather has changed, the Alps.
The scientists are now chemically analyzing the ice cores, to see if trace metals and dust frozen into the glacier can give clues to the climactic conditions that existed when it was formed, and also to get a better understanding of why temperatures in the Alps have been increasing at twice the rate around the world.
While the Alps are often depicted as a place of pristine, snowy beauty, in reality the Alto dell’Ortles glacier is located in what can be called the very “heart of Europe — one of the most industrialized and populated areas of the world.” Gabrielli and the other glaciologists are now investigating what role soot from central and southern Europe might play in this accelerated warming. Might such pollution be causing the surface of the glacier to darken, so that it absorbs more of the sun’s heat and then its ice melts?
The larch leaf was found less than 20 miles away from where the 5,000-year-old frozen body Ötzi the Iceman was found by two hikers in 1991. After this discovery, Austrian scientists removed Ötzi‘s body from the ice. His mummified remains are now preserved in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano and have yielded many fascinating details about the daily life of humans 5,000 years ago in the Copper Age.
As intriguing as it is to have found Ötzi‘s body and to learn all that we have from this discovery, it is also worrisome to know that so much of the Alto dell’Ortles glacier has melted to reveal what had been preserved for millennia. The glacier’s ice indeed harbors many secrets, in the form of life — a man, a leaf — frozen intact for years and years and in those chemical traces of metals and dust that can, it is hoped, offer us some clues about climate when the earth was younger. Let’s just hope that we humans can work on reducing emissions of fossil fuels, stop the pace of deforestation and take other measures to stem the rate of global warming, else what remains of the Alto dell’Ortles glacier might melt away before we can learn all we need to.
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